Veliko Tărnovo, Bulgaria

Our first stop in Bulgaria was Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgarian: Велѝко Търново), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and today is home to one of their biggest universities. Based upon my research it was a must-see and also a convenient stop on the train from Bucharest into Bulgaria. As a result, we were in this lovely northern Bulgarian city from Friday 14 July – Sunday 16 July. This gave us one full day to see the city; which was adequate given its size. This city was also our first introduction to the Bulgarian language and the cyrillic alphabet, which is used for Slavic languages. We’re now in the Balkans! This has made things a little more complicated for navigation but we’re managing 🙂

Transportation: We took the train from Bucharest to the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa (Bulgarian: Горна Оряховица – good luck pronouncing that!) then took a public bus to Veliko Tărnovo. The train took 6 hours, with 1.5 hours stopped at the border control in Romania (where they took our passports for about an hour while we sat on the train) and again for about 45 minutes at border control in Bulgaria. The bus was 20 minutes into the city. Overall, a bus from Romania to Bulgaria might have been faster but the train was easy and comfortable as the train wasn’t crowded, we had plenty of room and we had time to catch up on blogging and personal stuff online.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Hikers’ Hostel in a private room and shared bathroom. How did we like it? I’ll start with the positives: the hostel was located within walking distance of the old town and a bus stop and it had an excellent view of the fortress across the river from both our room and the common area. Unfortunately, that’s where the good points end. The bathroom was disgusting and unclean, the staff who ran the place were a few high school students that always had friends over to hang out, drink beer, party, and play with bow and arrows on the terrace (yes, they had a bow and arrow) and were pretty much useless with any advice. It had good ratings online so we unsure if this is what it is normally like or if things have gone downhill recently. We didn’t change locations since it would have been more trouble, but were SO glad to not be staying there any longer!

Eats: Our introduction to Bulgarian cuisine has had a very good beginning. I had no idea that Bulgaria produces tons of wines, which have turned out to be pretty good! And cheap (for us with CHF and USD). Also, the menus have had tons of variety and apparently they love salads – each menu has a big selection of fresh salads. Here’s some dishes we tried…

Our wine from our first night in Bulgaria. This wine was a blend of a Sauvignon Blanc and Misket, which is an ancient Bulgarian grape that produces light dry white wines. Perfect for a warm evening to cool down and relax.

We had lunch on Saturday at the Gurko Hotel and Tavern after our walking tour, which was recommended by our tour guide. The restaurant was a mehana, which is a traditional Bulgarian tavern that is decorated in a rustic style, adorned with rugs and farming implements, and offering primarily authentic Bulgarian cuisine. They had a nice view of the city as well.

Our lunch at the Gurko Tavern. Top left: Andrew at our table; Top right: My salad and bread, which was kind of like naan or pita; Bottom left: Andrew’s salad, which had yogurt and local cheese on it; Bottom right: Andrew’s Kavarma stew. This is a traditional Bulgarian stew of chicken, pork & carrots in a tomato broth. All of it was so good!


Saturday happened to be my 30th birthday. To celebrate, we went to a restaurant of my choosing, Shtastliveca (Bulgarian: Ресторант Щастливеца, translated as Restaurant Lucky) in the Old City. I had told them it was my birthday, and they gave us one of the best tables on the terrace overlooking the city with rose petals scattered on the table and meringues at each seat. The perfect evening for my 30th birthday!

The food here was from a “mixed kitchen” as our server noted, which basically meant it was modern cuisine with a Bulgarian flair. It was a huge menu with tons of options for every taste. Top left: my dessert, which was kind of like ice box cake in a ball form, but instead of whipped cream it was a sweet icing kind of like the cream in an Oreo. They were heavenly! Bottom left: my main course of duck and mushrooms in a marsala sauce; Bottom middle left: hummus; Bottom middle right: Andrew’s salad of peppers and cucumbers; Bottom right: Andrew’s main course of lamb shank and mushrooms over potatoes.

Activities: We had just one day to tour the city which was the perfect amount of time given the relatively small size. In the morning we did a fantastic free walking tour (donations accepted) with a local high school student. She amazed us with her knowledge and we had a great time going through the Old City with her and a small group of travelers.

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In the Old City. You can see the Turkish influence on the left in the buildings with the arcades and the style of the wooden eaves.
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A view from the Old City looking at the Tsarevets Fortress, a medieval stronghold of the Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1393. On the left, that empty looking hill was the location of the homes of all of the empire’s aristocrats. The photo is a good representation of the local topography, lots of tree-covered hills and the river winding through.
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Andrew and me in front of the fortress
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We had noticed these fliers all over the city, and my first assumption was that they related to an upcoming local election. Our tour guide corrected us, and explained that these fliers are posted to memorialize family members who have passed away. It is local custom to post a flier for a deceased relative on the day of the funeral, and then periodically for the future (at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, 1 year and then annually on the anniversary of their death). We saw some fliers that were for family members that had passed away more than 40 years ago.
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Walking through the Old City, you can see how the city is strategically located on a hill. For many people the hill was annoying but luckily as we lived in SF and Lausanne (both hilly cities), we were fine with it! I love hilly cities because you can see so much from different vantage points and it adds texture to the landscape.

Our visit to Veliko Tărnovo has made it clear that we are not in a top tourist destination for international travelers. We saw our tour and just one other tour on Saturday and the tourist information center was quiet. We did, however, meet people from all over the world on our walking tour (Germans, a Taiwanese, an Argentinian, a Colombian and a Polish girl) which showed that the country is capturing interest.

After lunch on Saturday afternoon we walked over to the Monument of the Asen Dynasty of the second Bulgarian Kingdom (AD 1185-1396). It had a fantastic view of the city.

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Walking across a bridge to the monument. The city of Veliko Tarnovo is carved by a river that winds through the hills. It created an interesting topography. 
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Built in 1985 by the communist regime, this monument was dedicated to the brothers Asen, Petar, Kaloyan and Ivan who lead the liberation of Bulgaria from the Byzantine Empire. Their dynasty ruled Bulgaria from 1187 to 1280. An interesting fact from our tour guide is that originally the communist government wanted to make this look like Arthur’s sword in the stone, but with a hilt at the top it would have looked like a Christian cross – not allowed in communism. So instead they put the sword pointing upwards. 

 

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View of the city and the Yantra river

For a last stop we walked to the Tsarevets fortress. There was no guide, but we had a little help through descriptions from our tour book. Apparently the communist government had reconstructed many of the buildings, so the walls you see here are not 100% original. Additionally, historians criticize how the government rebuilt the fortress as they are not confident they held to the original style. Either way, it does help to see the structure a bit and imagine what it might have looked like.

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View of the city from the fortress

Before dinner we went to the grocery store to grab snacks for the next day’s breakfast given our early planned departure. It’s always an adventure to go through local grocery store to see what the locals buy. Here we saw a cheese case packed with many different variations of the two Bulgarian cheeses (Kashkaval and Sirene), many types of sausages and in the dried foods aisles so many kinds of beans! An interesting view of the local cuisine and palette.

First impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria has been a true pleasure so far. Upon arrival it was a little rocky as we arrived in a ghost town of a train station and no bus schedule or map in sight. We googled a bunch and could not find any more information. Welcome to Bulgaria! Luckily our hostel had told us to take the #10 bus, which came within 10 minutes of us standing there wondering if we should just suck it up and pay for a taxi, which would very likely rip us off as we were warned. We had no idea if we took the bus in the right direction as the bus conductor gave us a shrug when we asked her about the direction, but it turned out to take us right into the center of the city within a short walk of our hostel! Success!

We encountered a neat cultural difference (for the first time of many) at dinner the first night. Bulgarians are a culture that have different head nods for “yes” and “no.” It’s opposite from ours! We remembered this because we asked for our bill at the restaurant and the server shook her head to me with what appeared to be a “no” from side to side. I was SO confused why she would do that and why she would NOT bring us our bill, until we both remembered that she was actually acknowledging me that yes, she would come back with it. And sure enough, she did.

Similar to Romania, the people have been kind and helpful. While we were not so happy with our hostel, the young tour guide impressed us and the city charmed us with its romantic red tile roofed houses covering the hill toward the river that carved a “U” through the center. It was a small city but a great introduction and beginning to our tour of Bulgaria. Next up: The lovely Black Sea-side town of Созопол…OK I guess you aren’t fluent in Bulgarian just yet. See you in Sozopol!

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